In this month’s blog, Bishop Bard discusses challenges and blessings of loving the church.
Before launching into my thoughts for the month, allow me a couple of announcements. Thank you to so many of you who have contributed money and materials for hurricane recovery. So many lives have been adversely affected by recent storms. Our fellow citizens on the island of Puerto Rico have been especially devastated. I am grateful to all who have given, grateful to our camps and to the churches that have been collection sites for hygiene kits and cleaning bucket supplies, and grateful to the moving company, Corrigan, for their generous donation in covering the entire cost of pick-up and delivery of supplies from here in Michigan to the Midwest Distribution Center in Illinois.
Together, we are doing some incredible things in the name and spirit of Jesus. I would encourage you to continue making contributions to UMCOR for Disaster Relief in the United States (Advance #901670). My Advent appeal plan this year will encourage continued giving toward disaster relief, 40% United States Disaster Relief, 40% International Disaster Relief, and 20% toward a disaster relief fund here in Michigan which can be used to help Michigan United Methodists respond to disasters in other parts of the country. More information about the Advent appeal will be forthcoming.
“Together, we are doing some incredible things in the name and spirit of Jesus.”
I also want to remind you of two upcoming opportunities to engage in conversation around LGBTQ inclusion and the unity and future of The United Methodist Church. November 20 at 7pm I will be at Hope UMC in Southfield and on December 7 I will be here in Lansing at the Area Ministry Center. These gatherings are not only for conversation, but are intended to ask how we might continue meaningful conversations in our local churches. I have been asked to consider scheduling more of these sessions and am planning to do so after the first of the year. I hope you will consider attending a session and I hope you will continue praying for them and for our United Methodist Church.
Speaking of the church, I recently participated in the installation of Rev. Scott Harmon as the Marquette District Superintendent. During my introduction of Rev. Harmon, I found myself saying, “Sometimes it is easier to love Jesus than to love the church.” The words had come out before I had really considered them deeply. I intended them to be humorous, and there was quite a bit of knowing laughter.
While I intended humor, there was also a serious intent behind those words, more serious than I had even considered when speaking.
Sometimes it is easier to love Jesus than to love the church. Loving Jesus, and doing so in response to the love of God we know in Jesus, is at the heart of being Christian. Jesus is at the center of our faith. In Jesus, we see the face of God – in his wisdom we know the wisdom of God, in his healing we understand the intent of God, in his death we can begin to fathom the depth of God’s love, and in his resurrection, we know the power of that love. In Jesus, we see a human life that fully realizes the love of God – a life lived in wisdom, a life dedicated to healing and justice and reconciliation, a life of faithfulness even in the face of death. Loving Jesus because we are so deeply and wildly loved seems rather easy. To say we love Jesus is to love a bit ethereally, to love a vision of who God is and what life lived in the love of God is like.
“To love Jesus means to love the church … the living, breathing, on-the-corner, historically-embedded church.”
Yet, in the words of the poet Richard Wilbur, “Love calls us to the things of this world.” The writer of I John echoes that. “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (I John 4:20b). Sometimes it is easier to love Jesus than to love the church, but to love Jesus means to love the church, and not the church in an abstract “communion of saints” kind of way, but the living, breathing, on-the-corner, historically-embedded church.
To love this church can be a challenge. This church has rough edges. There may be people in it we are not particularly fond of. We are painfully aware that the church has not always represented the Jesus we love well. In the traditional prayer of confession for communion, we pray to God that: “We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.” That’s us, sometimes and too often. The church has hurt and wounded and excluded.
Yet I love the church because I love Jesus, and I trust that this Jesus in whose name and spirit the church was formed continues to work within it, even with its deep flaws and tragic failings. Nor are flaws and failings the whole story of the church. I love the church because I see its potential, I see its beauty. I love the church because I’ve seen it welcome the stranger and outcast, minister to the poor and poor in spirit. There are few groups that can love like the church can love.
“There are few groups that can love like the church can love.”
At its best, the church welcomes the deep questions people want to ask, wisdom questions that are often ignored in other parts of society. At its best, the church does tremendous good – feeding the hungry, holding hands, courageously confronting walls that divide, advocating for justice, nurturing peace, educating, healing, connecting people with God. At its best, the church is a community that works with God’s Spirit to shape human persons in love. While pondering this essay, I serendipitously read these words in the most recent issue of The Christian Century: “Local congregations constitute God’s best idea for the healing of the cosmos” (Derek Nelson). You gotta love that!
There is a greeting that I have encouraged congregations to share with one another from time to time. Persons turn toward another and say simply, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.” It has sometimes been a powerful moment, a moment when we are reminded that to love Jesus is to love the church, even when loving the church is more difficult. We love the living, breathing, on-the-corner, historically-embedded church because God still works through it to heal human lives and the cosmos, and because something of Jesus lives in each of the flawed and particular people who are part of it.
The Christ in me greets the Christ in you on this joyful journey.